Members of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee are proposing to withhold funding for retirement of the W76-2 warhead unless the military and National Nuclear Security Administration can prove there is no need for the lower-yield submarine-launched weapon.

The proposal is included in the subcommittee’s markup of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), along with an addition to the bill that would limit NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby’s travel unless she delivers reports Congress required in the last two NDAAs.

Among other proposed additions to the bill, the subcommittee on Tuesday beginning at 10 a.m. will consider a “Prohibition on Availability of Funds to Reconvert or Retire W76–2 Warheads.”

“This section would prohibit the National Nuclear Security Administration from reconverting or retiring W76–2 warheads,” the proposal reads. “It would provide a waiver if the Administrator for Nuclear Security, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, certifies to the congressional defense committees that Russia and China do not possess similar capabilities and that the Department of Defense does not have a valid military requirement for the W76–2 warhead.”

The W76-2 is a lower-yield – between five and seven kilotons, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Federation of American Scientists – variant of the W76-1 warhead that rides on the Navy’s UGM-133 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile. Neither the Pentagon, White House nor the NNSA have announced plans to retire or dismantle any W76-2 warheads. The same language on limiting funding for retirement of the warhead is included in the 2023 NDAA. 

The Biden administration has cited the existence of the W76-2 as a reason not to develop a submarine-launched cruise missile, or SLCM-N, that would carry a lower-yield W80-4 warhead. In its 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, the administration decided to cancel SLCM-N “after determining that it would be a redundant capability in light of the W76-2.”

The 2022 nuke review also concluded that the W76-2 “currently provides an important means to deter limited nuclear use and retains the system, which will be periodically reassessed on its deterrent value as other systems come online and in light of the security environment and plausible deterrence scenarios.”

Proponents of SLCM-N argue it is needed to deter adversaries from “limited use” of a lower-yield nuke by U.S. adversaries Russia and China, both of which are building and fielding low-yield tactical nukes that could be used without reaching a threshold that could trigger nuclear war. 

SLCM-N supporters in Congress, the military and elsewhere argue that, armed only with large-yield thermonuclear weapons, the U.S. might not respond for fear of triggering nuclear war. Some of these people also say that W76-2, owing to its ballistic flight trajectory, is a complement to and not a replacement for a cruise missile, which can fly lower and evade radar.

Another proposal in the subcomittee’s markup of the bill would limit travel funding for Hruby to 80% until the NNSA provides a pair of reports to the House Armed Services Committee. One of those is about the modernization of the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, the central service center for U.S. nuclear weapons. The other is a report on NNSA “management and operation contract risk mitigation.” Congress ordered the reports in previous NDAAs.